Trusting local knowledge: the case of fire management in a Namibian park

Fire and humans have a long history in the African savannahs. Fire management has played a role in maintaining the biodiversity and livelihoods of rural communities. One example is when the rural West African savannah population in Mali burns a “seasonal mosaic” into the landscape. A combination of unburned vegetation that burned early and burned recently reduces the risk of more dangerous fires at the end of the season.

This type of combustion protects and also increases biodiversity. And it allows rural populations to hunt animals, harvest plant foods and regenerate pastures for livestock. Understanding this history is helpful when managing contemporary fire regimes.

Gary Chartrand

Bwabwata National Park in northeastern Namibia has a long and complex fire management history. The park is located in the center of the Kavango-Zambezi transboundary conservation area of ​​southern Africa. The park is unusual in that people live in it alongside wildlife, unlike many protected areas where people have been excluded from the landscape. The people living in the villages use zoned areas for subsistence in the form of livestock and crops, and obtain wild resources such as edible and medicinal plants. These areas also host community-based tourism projects and trophy hunting activities.

Both the Khwe-San (ancient hunter-gatherers) and Mbukushu (agro-shepherds) have used fire as part of hunting and agro-pastoral practices in the area for millennia. These traditions were interrupted by the colonial occupation due to the belief that they damaged the environment.

Controlled burns have only recently been formally reinstated in politics. The government now encourages the use of combustion for management purposes at the start of the dry season to prevent the spread of large fires at the end of the dry season.

We researched how, when, why and where people used fire in the park. We believed it would help integrate local ecological knowledge with current ecological management practices.

Based on our findings, we argue that understanding this history is critical to designing effective fire management to maintain biodiversity and support the livelihoods of the people living in the park.

Politics and fire
Fires were prohibited in Namibia for more than a hundred years (from 1884 to 2005), under colonial policies and in the first years of independence. This is because the fire was largely misinterpreted by the government. The traditional burning practices of the Khwe-San people were believed to be unsustainable and harmful, especially to the large and precious trees used in the forestry sector for railways, mines and timber production. The ban on local fires has disrupted practices essential to people’s livelihoods, culture and lifestyle.

Before independence in 1990, this area was exposed to decades of wars, political and inter-ethnic conflicts and deforestation. It has put pressure on the reduction of natural resources for rural communities. During Namibia’s struggle for independence (1960-1989), the South African border war took place in the region and the park was used as a military training ground.
The Khwe-San people, renowned pursuers and formidable hunters, were employed by the South African defense forces as soldiers. These socio-political circumstances disrupted the cultural practices of fire for a period of three decades.

After Namibia’s independence in 1990, political attention shifted to tensions between herding and former hunter-gatherer communities, as well as the need to maintain local livelihoods along with promoting an international tourism industry. However, colonial fire policies persisted and fires were only allowed again in 2006.

In our study, we looked at the Khwe-San and Mbukushu communities, park management, and fire-focused stakeholders. They included government staff responsible for Namibia’s forest and wildlife sectors, non-governmental organizations, academic researchers and environmental consultants. We found that most people preferred the use of deliberate fires, which began early in the dry season, to fire suppression policies.

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